In the era of hate speech laws, safe spaces and fact checkers
Many may argue that hunger, environmental depredation, nuclear war or extreme disparities of wealth are the main challenges of our times. I don’t dispute for a moment that without life’s necessities, a hospitable environment, peace and social stability, free speech may seem a luxury. If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then you might not care much about Internet censorship and mass surveillance. Indeed if the alternative to tyranny is starvation, you may just choose to embrace the illiberal ideology of your new masters, but will lack the analytical and informational means to challenge the ruling elite’s supremacy. You may be rewarded for your compliance with the system, but others may not be so lucky. Neither democracy nor individual freedom can exist without intellectual freedom, which in turn is ultimately meaningless without free will. If we have no independence of mind, other than the outcome of a complex interplay of biological and environmental influences beyond our control, then our ideas are mere physiological phenomena, which may like other faculties of human nature be healthy or unhealthy, strong or weak, valid or invalid, functional or pathological.
Back in the 1960s and 70s it was usually the notional left who would champion free speech on matters such as military adventurism, women rights, gay rights, dress freedom, workers’ rights, pollution, censorship and even on psychiatry, which many correctly viewed as a tool of mental tyranny. While the left in those days was far from united, encompassing socially conservative trade unionists and cultural revolutionaries from privileged backgrounds, we could at least agree to disagree. If someone dissented from the party line on a contentious issue such as abortion, they were perfectly entitled to their deeply held convictions. I recall such a discussion at a local Socialist Workers' Party meeting. Everyone seemed to accept that our Irish Catholic comrade had a different opinion on that matter. If anything intolerance would often emanate from the conservative right, unwilling to depart from strict interpretations of traditional Christian teaching on sexuality or countenance a radical critique of British foreign policy. Only 30 years ago at many dinner tables it may have been unwise to express your support for gay rights in the polite company of devout Christians. Today you’d be unwise to express your opposition to gay marriage or transgenderism in many places of work and education. Indeed you could even get fired for expressing your deeply held Christian beliefs.
Of course, the pretext for silencing public debate on these matters is that many traditional perspectives on human morality and values constitute hate speech. Opposition to gay marriage might offend homosexuals who are allegedly denied a right that heterosexuals have always enjoyed. Likewise if you oppose gender reassignment therapy for pre-teens, you deny somebody of their right to identify with a gender at odds with their anatomical sex. If you question the scientific validity of many new-fangled personality disorders, you may hurt the feelings of those who identify with their assigned psychiatric labels. If you support immigration controls to stabilise your country's population and maintain social cohesion, by the logic of hate speech you are merely revealing your pathological xenophobia against those who wish to move to your country. To question the orthodox account of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks would dishonour the memory of those who died that infamous day. If we may only express opinions consistent with authorised and sanitised facts, then any digressions can be associated either with hatred or misguided denial of officially certified reality.
My interest in corporate and state propaganda grew largely from a critical analysis of the advertising industry and later of mainstream media bias over US and UK military interventions in the Middle East. Indeed these two sectors are deeply intertwined. In 1929 Edward Bernays notoriously paid a group of young ladies at a women’s rights march to smoke cigarettes. While mainstream media have long depended on advertising revenue, advertisers promote not just products and services, but also ideas and lifestyle choices. I remember in 1990 after Iraq occupied Kuwait, PR Firm Hill & Knowlton launched a multimillion dollar awareness raising campaign featuring the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter who testified that she had seen Iraqi soldiers removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators. I would explain the bias of the BBC and liberal newspapers such as Guardian simply in terms of Britain’s submission to US-centred military industrial complex. However, until the early 2000’s my critique focused on consumerism and militarism from a clearly left green perspective. I blamed capitalism for triggering avoidable wars over resources or letting us succumb to mindless consumption. Then I noticed a strange phenomenon. The media began to co-opt many causes I had always associated with the radical left. The liberal media not only rebranded military interventions as humanitarian missions to avert genocide as in Kosovo or to free women from barbaric oppression at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, it championed environmentalism, gay liberation, disability rights, greater awareness of mental illnesses and open borders. I initially dismissed corporate sponsorship of progressive causes as cynical marketing ploys, but I kept discovering new issues that failed to fit the classical left / right paradigm, while ideas once associated with mainstream conservatism attracted vitriol from the new liberal establishment. I began to notice how scientific and historical controversies that we once openly debated had become off-limits. Only mavericks, quacks and extremists would question the new received wisdom.
The Pharmaceutical Lobby
Around the turn of the millennium I became aware of the presumed link between MMR vaccines and autism. There were a few public debates on the issue including one broadcast late at night on Channel 5. I had mixed feelings. One of my wife’s Italian childhood friends, a latter-day hippie, had prevented her children from being vaccinated on principle. I recall discussing the issue with my wife when our children were due to get their triple jab. I was very much in favour at the time. Only my wife had reservations. Having been diagnosed with a mild form of, Asperger’s whose validity I now question, my interest in this controversy grew. To this day I honestly cannot be 100% certain whether or not either thimerosal (a mercury additive used in most MMR vaccines before circa 2005) or a combination of three viral strains could cause neurological defects leading to regressive autism where previously sociable toddlers rapidly retreat into their shell, lose speech and suffer from inflammatory bowel disease. In 2003 I began to volunteer for various Asperger’s support groups in Scotland and met Bill Welsh, an intrepid MMR truth campaigner, shunned by the growing autism support industry. He tried to persuade me that my condition had nothing to do with autism, but MMR vaccines had caused an epidemic of a previously rare disorder. One Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee had earned my disdain through her consistent support for Tony Blair’s wars. On cue she unleashed her literary skills in favour of the pharmaceutical establishment in her 2004 piece urging us to dismiss any concerns about the new 5-in–1 vaccine jabs. All I wanted was a fair and open debate grounded in science, but we didn’t get one. Wikipedia articles on the subject were hastily edited to remove all links to sites sceptical of vaccine safety. Dr Andrew Wakefield, who had urged parents to have separate staged injections for Measles, Mumps and Rubella, had become a public enemy comparable with Saddam Hussein. To doubt the safety of MMR vaccines was now routinely compared with Holocaust denial as discouraging parents from having their children vaccinated might lead to epidemics of preventable childhood diseases. If the evidence so overwhelmingly supports the safety of MMR vaccines, why would the unholy alliance of governmental and commercial forces seek to stifle all debate?
However, vaccine safety was hardly the only issue that upstanding laypersons could no longer question. If you have ever discussed hot topics as varied as gay marriage, the Twin Tower attacks, the environmental sustainability of mass migration, US/UK funding of Islamic fundamentalists or even the 2008 mega-bailout of the banking sector, you will have discovered a new corporatist orthodoxy among self-styled liberal, progressive and green pundits. I don’t suggest for a moment that the truth always lies with unorthodox perspectives, but rather with empiricism and reasoned debate.
I could have added man-made climate change to the list of phenomena that the liberal establishment does not want us to dispute. An exponential rise in human industrial activity, not least over a billion cars with millions of miles of highways, are likely to have adverse environmental effects, but our business leaders are doing little to persuade us to consume less. I keep seeing ads urging me to buy a new car. Instead our rulers use the spectre of rapid climate change as a pretext to regulate us more. I suspect some prefer to believe climate change is not anthropogenic because they fear losing the greater personal freedom afforded by individual car ownership. I just want to know the truth. What’s happening and why? Then we may debate what action we should take.
Mental health prison
Meanwhile more and more youngsters were diagnosed with a new range of personality disorders and relative learning disabilities, which require special needs education and/or psychoactive medications, while emotional challenges in adults were reconceived as mental illnesses with biogenetic causes and medical cures. My brief involvement with autism charities taught me they did not really want to engage with adults on the spectrum unless we toed their line, which is basically that autism is a genetic condition that has always existed, but has until recently been severely underdiagnosed. They saw us as tools to further their agenda. We were all supposed to take pride in our diagnosis and our neurological otherness. Guest speakers at support group meetings would proudly cite new research claiming as many as 5% to 10% of people might be on their ever-widening autistic spectrum, but they did not welcome my suggestion that this spectrum might encompass the whole of humanity. Then I noticed that not only were alternative views on the MMR controversy being edited out of Wikipedia, but any serious challenges to psychiatrisation. Advanced societies have long had to deal with a tiny subset of the population who pose a serious threat to public safety. Just as we accept that some violent criminals should be locked up to let the rest of us enjoy relative peace and security, it seems reasonable that some extreme neurological conditions may warrant either medical detention or monitored treatment in the community. In my view psychiatry might be only valid as neurocriminology as long as we clearly define for which crimes we need neurological explanations. Over last 30 years the boundaries between sociology, psychology, psychiatry and pharmacology have blurred under the amorphous concept of mental health. Yet to question the mental health agenda is to invite instant ridicule. Dissent is limited to a few nonconformist writers, such as Robert Whitaker author of Anatomy of an Epidemic, who have challenged mass medication or over-diagnosis of mental illnesses.
Redefining Biological Diversity
If we fast-forward ten years, the same lobbies that silenced anti-MMR campaigners and promoted early years mental health screening are now busy supporting transgenderism. Now young children will learn not only about diverse neurological profiles or normalised mental illnesses, but also about a diversity of sexual orientations, family structures and gender identities. Let me be frank. Young boys and girls are impressionable creatures with wild imaginations. It’s not uncommon for children to identify as monsters, fairies, supermen, princesses or even as alien species. However, a good parent teaches their offspring to be proud of their biological reality and accept their natural limitations and potentials. A young boy may dream of being a Premier League footballer or a medal-winning athlete. If he doesn’t excel in sports, there are plenty of other worthwhile career paths or personal ambitions a young man may pursue. But why would a young boy want to identify as a girl? As a keen swimmer from an early age I sometimes fantasised being reborn as a dolphin. Like many I sometimes wondered what life would be like as a girl. Yet everyone around me treated me as a boy, although I never enjoyed football or took much interest in play-fighting. A relative bought me a toy gun, which failed to enthuse me. I was much more interested in building contraptions. Nobody indulged my fleeting fantasies except in games. Yet all of a sudden a growing number of youngsters identify as the opposite gender. I first became aware of this trend not in real life, but via the BBC school drama series, Waterloo Road, that featured a girl who identified as a boy. The same series had highlighted personality disorders and homophobic bullying too. Now schools in Glasgow are building unisex toilets to avoid embarrassing transgender pupils, a problem that barely existed just 5 years ago.
Joining the Dots
Now you may wonder what all these topics have to do with free speech on matters such as war crimes, terrorist attacks, genetically modified food or nuclear power. You may not care about the scale or culpability of US bombing of Indochina or the exact death toll of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Most of us tend to leave such disputes to historians, forensic scientists and archaeologists as we lack the means, time or academic background to verify their accuracy. Besides nothing we write today can undo historical crimes against humanity. By contrast our identity as male, female, non-binary, neurotypical or neurodiverse affects us all intimately. Of these only male and female have a firm basis in biological fact. The other categories are largely subjective.
Infantilising the public discourse
If we reduce human life to mere feelings that may be either indulged or closely monitored lest their expression unsettles the social order, we live in a mental prison of infantile emotions regulated by paternalistic experts whom we may no longer hold to account. Maturity means above all else learning to accept your true self and your place in nature and in wider society. That doesn’t mean submitting yourself to tyranny or curbing your ambitions, but understanding that you can only gain greater personal freedom, and thus independence, through honest self-awareness. Identity politics based on arbitrary and volatile categories empowers those with the technical means to sway emotions. Once we have acquiesced to restrictions on intellectual freedom to protect victim groups from alleged hate speech, we have effectively relinquished not only personal freedom but any meaningful democratic accountability. Free speech would cease to mean freedom of inquiry and rational debate, but merely the monitored expression of feelings.